Thursday, December 2

Buyer’s Guide: What To Know About Drinking & Buying Bourbon


The month of September marked America’s National Bourbon Heritage Month, celebrating the uniquely American history of the spirit. South Africans with a taste for adventure are spoilt for choice when it comes to finding great American bourbons on South African soil. The local market is growing as South Africans discover the variety, quality and versatility of bourbons available. Whether you sip it neat, on the rocks, with a simple mixer or at the heart of a cocktail, bourbon delivers complex, satisfying flavours rich with history.

Building on the market initially created by globally recognised American Whiskey brands such as Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, and Bulleit Bourbon, growing numbers of small Bourbon producers, such as Whistling Andy, B-Bird, Flag Hill and Golden Moon distillery’s Gunfighter Bourbon are also well received in South Africa.

Jim Beam whiskey

If you’re new to the world of bourbon, then check out this guide to the history of bourbon and how to find the perfect bourbon for your tastes:

What is Bourbon Heritage Month?

Bourbon was officially recognised as a distinctive product of the United States in 1964 with an act of Congress. In 2007, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution officially declaring September as “National Bourbon Heritage Month,” celebrating the uniquely American history of the spirit. Since then, bourbon enthusiasts have come together to appreciate the craftsmanship, history, contributions and achievements made within the bourbon industry.

So, what makes bourbon special?

With a history dating back to the 18th century, bourbon is an American whiskey with deep roots in the state of Kentucky, where distillers perfected the art of ageing corn whiskey in new, charred oak barrels. Bourbon was born of a corn mash, since corn was the grain most widely available in the region at that time.  In addition to corn, distillers may add other grains such as rye, wheat and malted barley to give the spirit more complex flavours.

Jim Beam whiskey

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Adding to its unique complexity, flavour and aroma are the charred oak barrels it is aged in. Since bourbon may not contain artificial colouring or flavouring, the charred oak naturally adds spice, sweetness and amber colour.

When is a whiskey classified as bourbon?

To be considered bourbon, the spirit must be distilled in the United States, consist of at least 51% corn, aged in charred, new oak barrels, and contain no colouring or flavouring additives. Bourbon may be produced in any state in America. To be designated ‘straight bourbon whiskey’, it must be aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years.

Jim Beam whiskey

What does bourbon taste like?

Depending on the mash bill, distiller and ageing process, the flavour notes in various bourbons will vary considerably. However, aficionados will often identify notes of cereal, vanilla, caramel and spice.

Bourbons in South Africa

A number of globally recognised American Whiskey brands are widely available in South Africa, including Jack Daniels, Wild Turkey, Jim Beam, Makers Mark, Bulleit Bourbon, Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek.

American whiskey

Also read: Buyer’s Guide: 5 Tips for Making Sense of the Whisky Aisle

There are also now a number of smaller distilleries interested in entering the market including:

Whistling Andy – a Straight Bourbon Whiskey comprising 60% corn, 17.5% barley, 17.5% wheat and 5% rye, this award-winning and complex Bourbon is aged for three to four years.

B-Bird – B.Bird Distillery’s young Bourbons recognise historic distillers who did not have time to age Bourbon. B.Bird’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey, aged for two years, is described as fruity, with notes of ripe berries, dates, sweet corn, vanilla and oak.


Flag Hill – Flag Hill distillery’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey is distilled and aged in New Hampshire, where ever-changing weather impacts the complexity of the spirit. It develops soft, warm notes of butterscotch and toffee, with layers of earthy flavours.

Gunfighter – Golden Moon Distillery’s Gun Fighter American Bourbon – Double Cask is aged for a minimum six months in new American oak casks, and then finished in used French oak casks that previously held California port-style wine. This gives the whiskey a unique smoothness and complexity.

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